Author Mary Roach on her new book, Fuzz, and the joys of experiencing the unexpected

Mary Roach C Jen Siska 300dpi

Mary Roach. // Photo credit Jen Siska

When author Mary Roach releases one of her pop-science books, you find yourself getting answers to questions you’d never thought of. Whether it’s the way Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal explains rectal feeding or how Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void explains how one might bone in zero gravity, the answers are clearly explained, fascinating, and hilarious.

Roach’s first new book in five years, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, is out this week from W. W. Norton & Company. We spoke with Roach about her writing process and the joy of exploring the weird and unusual—including digressions into Indian snack foods and the joys of old natural history museums.

The Pitch: It’s been almost five years since Grunt. Was part of the time in between due to the fact that there’s so much travel involved in writing Fuzz?

Mary Roach: Yes. Also, because of COVID, the book was pushed back. Ironically, we were thinking by fall of 2021, we’ll be able to do a normal in-person promotional tour, so that added an extra almost a year to the publication timeline. I was mostly done with the research, fortunately, when the pandemic hit so that didn’t hang me up, but the release date got delayed.

You literally went all over the world to do this. Did you foresee that happening when you started work on the book or was it something that happened gradually like, “Well, I guess I’m going to India now”?

I often look for researchers and things going on in other parts of the world, just because–number one, I love the travel and I love the otherness of people’s approaches and people’s methods when it comes to science and research–just a different take on things, particularly for this book. It keeps things interesting and entertaining and I enjoy it. I really didn’t know where it would take me.

I start these books with no idea what’s going on in this little universe that I’ve stepped into. And I do a lot of poking around–a lot of just, “Hey, anybody know what’s going on? What are you going to be doing in the next couple of years? And can I tag along?” I do a lot of random emailing and I’m talking to people to just get a sense of the landscape and figure out what seems like it would be an interesting trip but yeah, that is partly what takes time, because some of these things are like, “Oh, okay, you just missed Easter mass with the gull incident, so that’s going to be put off for a year.” So yeah, a lot of these things have a timeline of their own and my own timeline is irrelevant in that case.

You sort of alluded to what I think makes your books so appealing, the idea that you are a surrogate for the reader. You start off and we learn with you. When you tackle a subject, is it just you reading an article or something and you’re like, “I’m going to follow this rabbit hole as far as it goes,” or are you looking for topics you haven’t already covered?

Sometimes it’s just stumbling onto a sentence in somebody’s article and I’m intrigued by that. For example, Bonk: I was reading a piece in a film magazine about the films that Masters and Johnson had made inside a woman’s vagina. And I was like, “Oh, Masters and Johnson’s sex research–how wonderfully awkward that must’ve been in the early days!” And it was this moment where I thought, “Well, that’s going to be the next book.” It ranges from that, where it’s literally a minute of my life and the new idea dawns on me. In this case, it was a very roundabout path that led to this book.

It’s all over the map, but I’m always starting from a position of knowing nothing and I’m not smart enough or committed enough to stick to a topic for more than one book. You’d think that, having built a foundation of knowledge and having done one book, I might then choose to pursue that area of interest and then write something really nuanced and intelligent, but I never do that because I’m not bored, but I’m ready for something new, so I plunged into something else that I know nothing about, but that’s part of the fun. Like you said, I think it’s a bit of an advantage to be completely ignorant at the outset, because it’s fresh and surprising to me, so that surprise and curiosity and wonder comes through for the reader and the reader’s discovering it at the same time.

You ask the questions that I think people want to ask about certain topics that don’t ever really get addressed by people who are more familiar with the subject. Specifically, there’s an entire chapter in Packing for Mars about using the bathroom in space. That whole thing was something I’ve wanted to know about since I was 8-years-old.

I’m particularly proud of that chapter because it wasn’t just, “How do I to go to the bathroom?” It became this ode to the engineers at NASA who had to completely rethink the toilet because without gravity, the whole thing doesn’t work: water doesn’t fall down and flush things away and the shit itself doesn’t fall away from the body, so they’re all obsessed with good separation and they’ve got to design a toilet seat to spread the cheeks so there’s less surface tension so the turd will release and be easily pulled away by airflow. It’s like they’re reinventing the wheel just to help just so that people don’t have to crap in a bag, which they had to do on Gemini and Apollo.

Then, how do you test the toilet? You’ve got to put it on the zero-gravity simulation plane and somebody has to–on cue–take a crap. It was this whole backstory of engineering and trial and error and passion to the cause. I loved that chapter and the more I dug into it, the more amazing and bizarre and inspiring it became.

You’re not afraid to get literally visceral in your writing. Obviously, there’s Gulp, but it seems that each of your books is willing to discuss the gory aspects of whatever the topic. Is that ever a difficult thing for you? Was there a point in Fuzz, where it’s garbage and eviscerated bodies and poop again, where you’re just like, “I don’t know about this”?

No. I stepped into all of that with a certain amount of sometimes glee, but mostly just fascination. I would say that for Fuzz, there’s a chapter in the book toward the end that has to deal with the folks who are trying to investigate and test more humane methods of killing animals and invasive species in New Zealand. In New Zealand, they’re dealing with the effects of a number of species that were brought into the country that are now killing the flightless birds and reptiles and they’re trying to do it in a way that is more humane and that means testing poisons and traps.

That was really hard to take. Obviously, the staff turnover for those jobs is pretty high. That was difficult to see and also difficult to write in a way that struck the right tone, because I think that what these people were doing–although it seems like a kind of a grisly and barbaric occupation–if your country has decided to do this to eliminate invasive species, you need to do it in a humane way, the best way you can.

It’s kind of in its own way, sort of heroic work, but to write it in a way that got that across was a little challenging–and also just to report, it was a little challenging, but the other stuff that you’re mentioning, like the poop and the gore and all of that? I’m I okay with all of that.

The single word titles to your books: is this just something that happened or is it out of an idea that one-word titles are really easy to remember and recommend to your friends?

Both. It’s something that just happened. The first three: that’s just the title I came up with. Over time, it became clear to me that these titles were easy for people to remember, and that is an advantage. Then it started to be kind of a brand if you will, and I resisted that a bit.

I know we have Packing for Mars and that was because we really couldn’t think of a good one-word title for that book. We just knew it just wasn’t a good one. This book, the original title–which we had to change because of a similar title that came out in February–the original title for this book was Animal Vegetable Criminal, which I loved, but that’s a lot of words and syllables and Mark Bittman’s history of food is Animal, Vegetable, Junk, so the publisher felt that that was too close, or that people would think I copied him, so we went back to my brand.

Fuzz 9781324001935revised 2

Roach’s new book, Fuzz.

Were there any animals you wanted to talk about, but couldn’t figure out a way to work in? I noticed, for instance, it deals a lot with mammals and birds as opposed to insects. I’m assuming once you start exploring that, that’s a whole other book on its own?

I thought about including a chapter on insects because there is an entomologist–I don’t have his name off the top of my head–and he talks about the ethics of the pesticides and he gets into the awareness of insects and, and how these insecticides affect them and kill them. I had the chapter on the development of more humane poisons and covered that terrain with the invasive species in the New Zealand chapter, so it felt a little bit redundant, but I did give thought to that. That’s something I did consider, but it ended up at the back of the file cabinet drawer that has four or five folders which just didn’t make it in for some reason or another.

This is neither here nor there, but I did appreciate that, in one of the chapters in India, you wrote about your appreciation for brightly-colored Indian snack foods, and specifically the mention of Masala Munch, as I am a big fan of everything that company makes.

It was just like, “Oh my God, Masala Munch!” I’d just be scanning as we drove along: “There! They got it!” There’s a place out here in Berkeley, near where I live, and they have a little store, which has Indian goods, produce, and packaged foods, and I’m always checking there for Masala Munch. They don’t import that particular line, and I’m always like, “Dammit.”

But, I’m glad to hear that. I think you’re probably the only person who will read that chapter and understand my passion. When I’m in some weird country, I love to go into the supermarket or the little bodega and check out the snack food items and little packaged things. I mean, it’s not just India–Japan has some amazing stuff. I feel like it has to be my next book: Snack.

There is something about the appeal in traveling and learning about–even just regional differences within the United States–by just stopping into the grocery store or the local gas station, as opposed to your chain shops. Even though it doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to do a book tour for Fuzz, how do you get to know the towns and cities which you’re in?

I have three places that I love to go if they have them. One is a little bodega. Like you said: not a chain store, but the places where people buy their groceries, their hardware items–hardware stores– supermarkets and grocery stores. There’s always one not far from your hotel, so you don’t have to figure out a bus route across town.

Also, cemeteries. I love to see how some of them are raised up. Some of them have little offerings of like beer and cigarettes and things that the person loved in this life. Some of them, I just like the architecture and the tributes: “Are there photos on the tombstones?” Cemeteries are fascinating in other cultures.

Also, natural history museums. I love particularly ones that haven’t been changed in the past hundred or plus years. I love the dioramas. I love the taxidermy. I love just the signage, the way the little write-ups of what it is–if it’s a language I understand. I’m a big sucker for those. There’s one in London I stumbled into just ’cause I was staying in Bloomsbury and it was this little tiny museum and it had this jar of–it’s gonna come to me–it almost looked like how they used to sell pickled eggs on counters. It was like a big glass jar full of pickled–what the hell were they?

I don’t know what the thinking had been behind it–why they had a batch of many of these and why they felt like people would learn from this. It was just a bizarre little, some kind of natural history. Alright, I’m going to email you later when I remember what was in the jar.

Four minutes later, I get a call from Mary Roach:

18 moles, packed in a jar!

Mary Roach’s latest, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, is out this week from W. W. Norton & Company.

Categories: Culture